BY JOE DISTEFANO
As the Culinary King of Queens, I’m so very fortunate to live in the most diverse and delicious destination in all of New York City. Really I’m not royalty though, I’m an ambassador, and a hungry one at that. Today, we examine a cuisine—Malaysian—found in a most unusual location an erstwhile Chinese bakery in Elmhurst.
It’s not unusual to find a Malaysian eatery in Elmhurst, after all there several others in the neighborhood, which has had a Southeast presence for at least a decade. What sets Little House Cafe apart is that for most of its life it presented as a Chinese cafe specializing in various buns and cakes.
When I first visited it thanks to intel from local Queens vloggers Food & Footprints, the yellow awning read, “Bubble Tea. Bakery. Teriyaki Express. Asian Cuisine,” and the only photos in the window were of hamburgers and bubble tea. Just inside the door was a pretty standard selection of Chinese buns and treats, with a few items, notably Malaysian brown sugar cake, that a gave a clue to the fact that the “Asian Cuisine” referenced in the awning was in fact Malaysian.
On that first visit I had the aforementioned cake—spongy, sweet, and fragrant—along with a nice strong Malaysian style iced coffee while I waited an unusually long time for an order of chow keuh teow. The latter is a tangle of flat stir fried noodles shot through with shrimp, squid, fish cake, pork all cooked up with soy sauce and chili paste. Little House’s is excellent, the noodles a deep brown and slightly charred along with the seafood, a result of extra time in a blazing hot wok. Another tour de force of wok cookery from Chef Jeremy Lee and his son and sous chef, Jeremy Lee, is the prosaically named fried carrot. It’s actually chunks of daikon radish cake studded with dried shrimp. Known as chǎo luó bo gāo in Chinese, the crunchy salty burnished cubes are the most exciting way to eat your veggies in Elmhurst.
The most amazing creation at Little House though is a sweet brownish bun. It’s not one of the fist-sized numbers, that fill the baskets by the door though. This one, known as the Golden Pillow, is a Singaporean style jumbo curry chicken bun the size of my head. It must be ordered a day in advance and will set you back $16, but it’s well worth it. Helen Bay, the family’s matriarch delivers it personally to your table for oohs and aahs before taking it to the kitchen to crack it open. A few moments later she returns. Cut open it resembles nothing so much as a flower whose sweet bready petals surround a reddish pool of chicken and potato, fragrant with coconut, chili, and curry. It may momentarily call to mind roti canai, but it’s way better.
Noodle soups, notably the Malaysian classic curry mee with young tofu, are excellent as well. The bowl consists of a cavalcade of textures and flavors: spicy green pepper, eggplant, and soft tofu blocks all stuffed with fish paste along with yellow noodles in a sinus clearing coconut curry lemongrass broth gone red from chilies. Topping it off are several crunchy sheets of tofu skin, filled with just a hint of the same fish paste.
Thanks to a New York Times review in summer 2018 the folks are a little prouder of their cuisine. It sits in the window alongside photos of Malaysian dishes, nary a hamburger or bubble tea in sight. And that Golden Pillow now graces the front of the menu. They’ve even begun to offer rotating weekend specials. My favorite is chicken rendang, tender braised chicken was coated with a coconut curry a fair amount of heat and a nice hint of kaffir lime.
There are many dessert options. My favorite is a blue and white number made from sticky rice with salted coconut milk. It comes with a little tub of light green pandan scented kaya for dipping. The combination of the rice cubes with the sweet green jam that carries a haunting scent of baking bread and cooking rice is a great way to cool the palate after a spicy meal. It’s also quite fitting for a restaurant whose Chinese name translates to jù xiāng yuán chá cān tīng or “Fragrant Garden Teahouse.”
Little House Cafe is located at 90-19 Corona Ave., Elmhurst. 718-592-0888